What Is Your Legacy?

02/05/2015 04:39 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015
Betsie Van Der Meer via Getty Images

"Very good, Jason Grace," Notus said. "You are a son of Jupiter, yet you have chosen your own path-as all the greatest demigods have done before you. You cannot control your parentage, but you can choose your legacy." -- Rick Riordan, The House of Hades

What is a Legacy?

Sharing conversation over beers with a group of friends, a 30-something young male proclaimed that this was his last summer of single-hood because he was planning to get married in the fall and wanted to start a family immediately. More typically it is the female in her late thirties who feels the urgency of her biological clock ticking and therefore eager to settle into a family mode so I asked this young fellow, why?

"I want to leave a legacy." He answered. It seemed he was fulfilling a checklist of Middle-American conformist ideals of what must be accomplished to attain a successful life. Yet, with his rather lopsided and naïve answer, I railed into him.

"Seriously!" I snapped. "How can you think your offspring are your gift or possession? A Legacy," I continued, "is what YOU leave behind when your physical being has passed on. Some call it karma. For an artist, it is his or her art; for a writer, it is the words; for a musician, it is music; for an entrepreneur, it is an invention of business; for a gardener, it is a beautiful landscape; for a chef, it is new recipes...yet, for a parent, you think it is the child? Do you think you are a property of your parents and their legacy? If you were your parent's legacy, that would surmise you are fulfilling their dream and you would have no free will to be your own person. Do you not possess pride in your choices, accomplishments, and contributions to society? Your parents leave behind a legacy for you and the rest of society -- but you are not their legacy."

This opened up a dialogue on what is legacy and reflection on one's personal lineage and history. I know many people say that our children are our legacy. I disagree. I believe the more important question is what legacy will we leave behind for our children (or future generations, if one has no children).

A legacy should be deeply considered. It takes on immortality, and it is how we live on after death. If we think of our legacy as a gift, it places an emphasis on the thoughtful, meaningful, and intentional aspects of legacy. The consequences of what we do now will outlive us.

What one leaves behind is the quality of one's life, the summation of the choices and actions one makes in this life, our spiritual and moral values.

~~~

Many well-intentioned families can unwittingly leave behind Monster legacies.

Consider Mel Brooks comic movie Young Frankenstein. The neurotic and insecure young Frankenstein (played by Gene Wilder), possesses a genius scientific mind, but is haunted by his family legacy. The esteemed endeavors of his famous grandfather, the Dr. Frankenstein, overburden young Frankenstein's ability to establish his own scientific credentials without feeling the weight of his progenitor's accomplishments. He flogs himself with a desire to better his grandfather. The weight of his family legacy is so overbearing that he does not feel capable of contributing to society in a comparable way, doubting and seeing himself as a failure. In the end, old Frankenstein's legacy leads to young Frankenstein's demise. Instead of using his gifted scientific genes to cure cancer, for example, he attempts to raise the dead, both actual and metaphorical. Consider many offspring of famous persons. While one can feel respect and admiration for what their forefather's accomplished, they only earn pride in their own accomplishments.

Children of esteemed ancestors who haven't found their own identity can adopt a verisimilitude of self-accomplishment in the guise of what their ancestors have accomplished. They cloak themselves in their ancestor's cape. They feel debilitated and unmotivated to create for themselves, instead existing in the notoriety of their ancestor's fame. They live in a shadow.

And, the problem of legacy renders itself in today's competitive college placement. A parent my hold an allegiance and sense of pride in their alma mater, and the child may feel compelled or pressured to follow the same academic path. If they fail to be accepted because the academic barometer is higher and more competitive today, this young adult may feel defeated and a higher sense of failure than a non-legacy applicant's rejection.

~~~

Coming back to the conversation at the bar. Another gentleman, in his fifties, who works for a financial institution, chimed in. "I get your point." He said. "I am finally doing well in my business and making enough money that I can support my family and I have created enough money to leave behind wealth for my children. A financial legacy."

I argued this point, too. "Yes, by one definition in the dictionary a legacy is a gift of personal property, as money. My parents left me no financial fortune. They valued self-reliance. I have seen too many people who value their well-endowed pocket book and inheritance more than their self-worth and pride of accomplishment. Heirs can float through life with a sense of entitlement, lifted by the wealth of ancestors, destroying the possibility of being successful on their own merits. While it is noble, and one may even say responsible, to leave behind financial security for one's heirs, if they are not being taught how to fish for themselves, what may seem like a fortunate inheritance could become a disease of human malfunction. Given money and no lessons on self-reliance or self accomplishment robs children of their own volition and choices."

This called for another round of beers. Is inheritance a legacy? It is possible to honor the accomplishments one's ancestor's-and grateful for them-without being defined or defeated by them?

Others around the table contributed their ideas of what defines a legacy: ethical choices, moralistic lifestyle, sustainable ecological living, charitable work, compassion to humanity, scientific discoveries and as was previously mentioned artistic creations (music, paintings, literature, and so forth). What they all share is that legacy constitutes one's character and good (or bad) deeds. It is important to note, it is not what one acquires but what one creates. I like to think of a legacy as encouraging the next generation, through one's choices and actions, to identify and work towards realizing their own accomplishments and greatness.

Our conduct in this life leaves behind ripples, an impact, of our actions after our death. In the afterword to The Other Wes Moore: One name, Two Fates, Tavis Smiley summed it up, "The choices we make about the lives we live determine the kinds of legacies we leave."